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Killer Whale Does Something Totally Unexpected

The extraordinary sighting of an adult female killer whale with an adopted calf of another species has astounded scientists and is causing experts to reassess orca behaviour.

Adult orca and pilot whale calf sighted together
Big fin and different shaped little fin: a close-up shot of the adult orca and pilot whale calf together. Credit:

Orcas, or killer whales, are apex predators, best known for their ferocious hunting techniques. So when a female was seen apparently caring for the offspring of another species, it came as a bit of a surprise. “I saw straight away there was something weird about it,” says Marie-Thérèse Mrusczok, who was working as a spotter on the Láki Tours whale-watching boat that witnessed the encounter.

The ship’s crew initially thought it was a very small killer whale calf swimming alongside the orca, but photos later confirmed what Mrusczok suspected - that the female appeared to be looking after a newborn long-finned pilot whale.

The unique 20 minute sighting happened near Snæfellsnes on Iceland's west coast and is the subject of a research paper published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. “It’s another level of empathy we see in these animals if they are capable of caring for another species,” says Mrusczok, who is president of conservation nonprofit Orca Guardians Iceland and a researcher at the West Iceland Nature Research Centre.

"Killer whales have never been seen caring for the offspring of another species, so this in itself is extremely interesting," says Elizabeth Zwamborn, a PhD candidate in the Whitehead Lab at Dalhousie, who co-authored the new paper, reports Dalhousie University.

The question researchers have been unable to answer is whether the calf was adopted after being orphaned or abandoned, or whether the orca stole the calf from its parents. “There are many possibilities … but what we can say for sure is that the female showed protective behaviour towards the pilot whale calf,” Mrusczok says.


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